The "sport of kings" is of ancient origin. For thousands of years horses have raced in England, on the European continent, in ancient Mongolia and in the Middle East. Regardless of its origin, horseracing has flourished in the United States for a couple of centuries. What has made it such a popular activity? It is an exciting and multi-faceted sport with its own language, culture and actors. Here are a few details to help you get into what is truly a complex subject.
"Horseracing" in the United States almost always means thoroughbred horse racing. Thoroughbreds are a specific and popular subset of race horses. Some tracks are set up for harness racing and others for quarter horse racing (called "standard bred" horses). Much that is said about thoroughbred racing applies equally to harness and quarter horse racing, but not all of it. Each kind has its unique vocabulary and concepts, particularly in handicapping. It is suggested that the newcomer become fully familiar with thoroughbred racing first, as it is far and away the most popular and most common form of horse racing. Later, it may be fun to diversify into harness and quarter horse racing, where are highly specialized subjects.
The almost universal objective is to forecast the outcome of a certain race (or combination of races) at a specific track on a specific day. This means predicting how one or more of the horses in the race will perform, taking into account the competition, the jockey and all the environmental variables. The process of making this prediction is called "handicapping." Racing fans will obtain information in advance about the races to be held. More importantly, they will acquire data on the horses and riders in each race and their respective histories. This information, when combined with other considerations (such as the length of the race and the condition of the surface) will lead to a conclusion about the probable outcome of the race. This conclusion, which is the end product of the handicapping process, will then permit the racing fan to decide whether and how to place a bet or a series of bets.
Horse racing has its own peculiar terminology. Some of it has been applied to all forms of betting and is well understood. For example, even Grandma knows what a "dark horse" or a "winning ticket" is, though she may not be aware that they are horseracing terms. A good bit of the jargon, however, has remained obscure to the uninitiated. The term "handicapping," for example, may mean something totally different in a non-racing context. Other examples of the obscure include "pastern," "pari-mutuel," "livery," "post parade" (which comes before the race, not afterwards), and "overlay." On this webiste these terms are defined as they arise. Learning the language is an important part of understanding what goes on at the race book.
Every horseracing outcome takes place at a "track." It is important to understand what the track is all about and to visualize it correctly. Unlike human track and field events, horse races often differ in their lengths and contours from tracks to track, and even as between races at the same track. Unlike human track events, the racing surfaces can vary greatly. Horse racing used to be mainly on grass (called "turf"). Turf surfaces are still very common in the United Kingdom and on the Continent. In the United States races on dirt are much more common because turf simply does not hold up well after days of multiple races. Most tracks do maintain a turf surface, usually inside the dirt oval, and announce turf events from time to time. But day-in, day-out, dirt is the surface for all but a few races. Does this make a difference? Yes. Dirt is generally a faster surface, and it can be a little more stressful on the horses. Moreover, the condition of the track becomes much more important in predicting outcomes. A wet, sloppy or muddy track may favor certain kinds of horses over others, but those same contenders may perform poorly on dry, hard surfaces.
Early on, race tracks sprang up all over the country. Some of them became large and historic venues, steeped in traditions of their own. The most well-known are the three Triple Crown tracks (Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park). Other famous ones are Santa Anita, Aqueduct and Saratoga. Many other "major league" tracks operate throughout the United States. Some online race books also take bets on tracks in other parts of the world as well.
On race day, much attention is focused on the horses themselves, and a good bit of handicapping involves the horse, its bloodline and its record. As strange as it sounds, many fans try to "play the horses" with no understanding of horses, which is a mistake. Horses are the main athletes in the event. The other obvious actors are the jockeys, less important than the horse, of course, but still influential on the horse's performance. Back in the stables (usually on the far side of the track from the grandstand) are the trainers and their staff (referred to a "the barn"). Though they are not as visible as the horses and jockeys, the trainers are an important element in the training of thoroughbred race horses to become the athletes able to perform in the events. Likewise, the identity of the owner also enters into the handicapping process because of his (or her or its) influence on the care of the animal and the management its career, and because the owner often is the breeder as well. The owners and trainers are generally referred to as the horse's "connections."
On race day, the track will probably schedule several races, and in each race, several horses will be entered. The decision about what sort of race to organize and the quality of the horses to be entered is ultimately made by the Race Secretary, an important track official. The composition of the races takes place, of course, with lots of input from the owners and trainers. Owners pay a fee to enter races, in hopes of coming out ahead by winning the "purse" (the prize money awarded to the horses who finish "in the money.") There exists a hierarchy of races, starting from contests in which none of the entrants have ever won before, and going up to the champion "stakes" races that are well known, like the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders Cup. The "race conditions" are the rules established for the race by the Race Secretary. Each race is numbered, as is each horse in the race. Thus, a bet of "two on three in the fourth" is a two dollar bet on horse number three in the fourth race on the card.
At the track, bets are accepted up to a few seconds before the race begins. Proof of a placed bet is a "ticket," and a bet that wins is a "winning ticket." Without the ticket, the bet can not be collected upon. The payoff of the bet is determined by the total amount bet on the race, minus a "take-out" for the track (to cover expenses, taxes and profit), then divided among the winners in proportion to the amounts wagered. "Straight bets" are that a given horse will come in first ("win"), or in the first two positions ("place"), or in the top three ("show"). "Exotic bets" are combinations of wagers on several horses, several races, or both. Learn more about Horse Bet Types